Johan Rockström
1,784,643 views • 12:22

In 2015, we saw two fantastic, hopeful breakthroughs for humanity. First, the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, the collective, universal plan for humanity to eradicate hunger, [promote] good economic development and good health, within global environmental targets. Secondly, after 21 years of negotiations, we adopted the legally binding Paris Agreement, all nations in the world keeping global warming under two degrees Celsius, aiming at 1.5 degrees Celsius. Today, three years down the line, we're still in the hand-waving business.

Now, I think it's time to step back one step and recognize that I wonder if the world leaders really knew what they signed at the General Assembly three years ago. These are universal, aspirational, transformational goals for inclusive, prosperous humanity on a stable earth system. But there are underlying problems. We have inherent contradictions between these goals, where there's the risk of pursuing one favored goal at the expense of others. Take, for example, Goal 8, on decent work and economic growth. If we continue doing that by exploiting natural resources and burning fossil fuels, it will be impossible to reach Goal 13. Three years down the line, we simply must admit we're seeing limited action to really, really address this as an inclusive, collective, universal package.

Now, this requires us to step back one step. I think we have to ask ourselves some hard questions: Do we have any chance of accomplishing the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030? Are there actually inherent trade-offs that are not compatible with our current development paradigm? But are there, perhaps, synergies where we can really accelerate change? And is it really a people-planet agenda, really taking seriously the social and economic aspirational goals within the life-support systems on earth?

Now, citizens across the world have started to recognize that we're facing global rising environmental risks; in fact, that a stable planet is a prerequisite to have good human well-being on earth. We need to define a safe operating space on a stable earth system, and the planetary boundary framework was introduced by the scientific community in 2009 to do exactly that. It has now been widely embraced across the world in policy, business and communities as a framework for sustainable development in the Anthropocene.

This slide really shows the framework with the nine environmental processes that regulate the stability of the earth system, providing a safe operating space, where we'll have a high chance of having good human well-being and prosperity and equity. If we move into the yellow zone, we enter a dangerous uncertainty zone; and into the red, we have a high likelihood of crossing tipping points that could take us irreversibly away from the ability of the earth system to provide social and economic well-being for humanity.

Now, we can today, scientifically, quantify these boundaries, providing us a stable earth system for humanity. But we have to go beyond this and recognize the Sustainable Development Goals — if we really want to seriously accomplish them — must now occur within this safe operating space. We need to achieve SDGs within PBs.

But dear friends, not even this is enough. We need to recognize that the Sustainable Development Goals is 12 years away. It's only a milestone. It is the bull's-eye that we need to go through and zoom ourselves towards transformations where we can have a good future for all co-citizens on earth, nine billion plus, within a stable earth system in 2050 and beyond.

This is a quest, and in order to really explore this and not have only opinions about it, we gathered the scientific community, the best thinkers and modelers and started to develop a completely new complex systems dynamic model, the Earth-3 model, building on models that have been around for the last 50 years. And here it is. This is a fantastic piece of work. This has a climate module, a biosphere module, a global economic model; it has algorithms, it has the whole room of fantastic accomplishments. This is what turns us scientists on.


I mean, this is just a beautiful piece of work? And I'd just love to spend the whole evening walking this through with you, but I'll make you disappointed. I cannot do that. In fact, the only thing I can do with you is just to assure you that this is the first time it's done. Nobody has ever tried to really analytically combine the Sustainable Development Goals with planetary boundaries. And we were able to find patterns and really convergent trends that gives us a lot of confidence in our ability to now project economic development, resources use from water, food and energy, population growth, income per person, yet along these consistent and systemic pathways. So, it's the first time we have a robust opportunity to really explore the futures of ability of attaining the SDGs within PBs.

Now, how do we do this? Well, look at this. Here, you have the data coming from the real world, calibrated from 1970-2015: 100,000 data points around the world, building on seven regions' ability, of really picking on all these Sustainable Development Goals. Now, one example of how we calibrated this, here you have [data] for Sustainable Development Goals on eradicating poverty, health, education and food. And here you have in the bubbles the seven regions of the world, how they move up until 2015 in our empirical observations in relation to GDP per capita, giving these universal convergent trends, which enabled us to create regressions that could make us able to do simulations into the future, all the way until 2050, showing the ability along the lines here to attain the SDGs.

Now, this gave us the opportunity of doing several scenarios, testing different possible futures: business as usual, global transformations, investment schemes in business, different governance options, policies, finance — really, to explore what the future can look like in our ability to attain the SDGs within PBs. And the results, I can tell you, really surprised us. And this will be the first time it's shown. It should actually not even be referenced outside of this room.

Now, it actually is presented along two axes. The y-axis here shows our ability to stay within planetary boundaries. The higher up, the closer you are to the safe operating space. On the x-axis are the Sustainable Development Goals; the further to the right, the more of the SDGs we fulfill. We all want to be in the upper right-hand corner, the safe and just world for the future. Now, the point you see there is 1980. We were in a situation where we actually were in a safe operating space but not meeting so many of the SDGs. Here's the trend up until 2015. So this is the conventional world, which is actually delivering on an increasing number of SDGs, lifting millions of people out of poverty, but doing it at the expense of the safe operating space on earth.

Now, this is the scenario business as usual, into the future. If we just move on as today, we will be able to deliver on some of the SDGs, but we'll do it at the expense of the stability of the earth system. Now, what if we go faster on economic growth and really ally on one percent increase per year of income and an even tripling of the world economy by 2050? That would give us the following trajectory. We would, yes, go a little bit further on SDG accomplishments, but still at the expense of the risk of destabilizing the planet. But what if we really go harder? What if we increase our ability to deliver on our promises by 30 percent across all sectors in society, from climate to our trade agreements? A harder scenario would take us a little bit better, but still, we're failing on the SDGs, and we are not accomplishing a safe operating space for humanity.

So this really led us to a quite disappointing conclusion, that we will actually, even if we go conventional futures, fail on the SDGs and transgress planetary boundaries. We need some radical thinking. We need to go into a transformative, disruptive future, where we start thinking outside of the box. The modeling and engagement and dialogues enable us to identify five transformations that could actually potentially take us there.

The first one is to cut emissions by half every decade along the scientific pathway to Paris, doubling investments in renewable energy, creating a global energy democracy, allowing us to meet several of the SDGs.

The second is a rapid shift towards sustainable food systems, investing one percent per year in sustainable intensification and really moving towards implementing and investing in solutions that we already have available today.

The third is really to shift our development paradigm and learn from many of the developing countries that have moved very fast. What if we could have an economic growth such as in China, while doing it within the environmental parameters of an ecological civilization?

Fourth, a redistribution of wealth. What if we could [agree] that the richest 10 percent could not allow themselves to amass more than 40 percent, maximum, of national incomes — a drastic redistribution of wealth, reforming the ability of equity across regions?

And finally, fifth, a radical increase in more education, health, access to work, contraception, investing largely in women across the world, allowing us to deliver on SDGs on gender, inequality, economics and urban development.

Now, if we would push ourselves across all these five — we tested this, and it would give us an amazing journey towards the safe and just operating space on earth. It shows us that even with a conservative, empirically based, complex system dynamics model, we are at a state where we can actually think of transformations over the next 12 years and beyond that can take us up into the safe operating space and deliver on aspirational social and economic goals. This is actually quite uplifting, despite the fact that we're not moving along this trajectory.

So, in summary: we now, three years into the operational delivery on the SDGs, must draw a line and conclude that we're not delivering on our promises, and not only that, we're running the risks of future generations having an even tougher ability, because of the risk of pushing the earth system beyond tipping points. In fact, we are facing even a risk of a hothouse earth, where we will undermine and create geopolitical instabilities that could actually make life even more tough for billions of people on earth. This, in all honesty, really, really scares me.

But that's also why I'm standing here tonight, because the window of success is still open. The earth system is still resilient. She is still providing us with ecosystem services and functions that can allow us a transition back into a safe operating space. But we need radically different thinking. We need to see this as an incredible wake-up call but also an opportunity for transformative change, where we shift gears and really start thinking of the SDGs as a transformative agenda within a safe operating space on earth. In other words, we can build a safe and just world. We just have to really, really get on with it. And let's do it. Thank you.